The shedding of dead cells on the skin’s outermost surface is a normal process that results in the younger cells underneath the surface.  In the process, the skin looks and feels soft, smooth and supple with each shedding.  However, the skin requires assistance to facilitate the process, which is achieved through exfoliation.

Simply put, exfoliation involves the removal of the dead cells on the skin’s surface through mechanical and chemical means as well as a combination of both methods.  It is usually provided in spas and salons although in-home treatments are also popular for maintenance purposes.

Why do I need to exfoliate as I age?

The skin’s lower layers are responsible for the creation of new skin cells, which migrate to the surface of the skin while becoming more acidic in the process.  The journey from the lower to the upper skin layers takes approximately 30 days, which is characterized by even growth and shedding of the skin cells.

As we age, shedding becomes an uneven process that leads to dry, dull and uneven rough skin. Exfoliation is necessary to effectively remove the dead skin cells evenly so that an even skin tone can be achieved. In turn, you will enjoy the benefits of a fresh, glowing complexion.

But exfoliation is not just for shedding dead skin cells.  Its other notable benefits include the following:

  • It prepares the way for the skin to better absorb other skin care products such as active ingredients like retinols and vitamins.
  • It exposes the hair follicles, thus, allowing for a closer shave in both men and women.
  • It boosts blood circulation and lymph flow.
  • It helps in the reduction of fine lines since dead skin cells are removed from the outer layers.  Just make sure that you do not over-exfoliate as it can lead to dry skin, which aggravate said fine lines.
  • It brightens the appearance of dull, pigmented, devitalized skin.

Indeed, as much as your skin needs nourishment, it also requires exfoliation so as to eliminate the old to make way for the new skin.

What are the actions of a skin exfoliant?

The actions of an exfoliant depend on its type.  On one hand, a physical exfoliant uses mechanical actions like rubbing, scrubbing and polishing to remove dead skin cells.  These types of exfoliants may use ingredients such as beads and granules although even a simple washcloth or loofah will also do the trick. Care should be taken not to over use these products and create too much friction on the skin which could lead to irritation and sensitivity.

On the other hand, a chemical exfoliant uses acids or enzymes from plants and other synthetic substances.  The main purpose of these products is to dissolve the bonds between the dead cells in the skin surface, which will make it easier to shed them either by its natural process or with the help of physical exfoliants.

What are my exfoliant options?

As previously mentioned, exfoliants come in two types.  First, physical exfoliants include ingredients like salt or sugar, jojoba beads or synthetic microbeads, coffee grounds or rice, as well as pumice stone particles.  You can buy physical exfoliants in scrubs and pads that contain one or more of the above mentioned ingredients in almost all supermarkets, drug stores and beauty shops.  You may also avail of exfoliation services like microdermabrasion, which involves the use of micro-crystals to polish the skin surface, from beauty spas and dermatological clinics.

Second, chemical exfoliants use acids like alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic and citric), beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid), retinoids (adapalene, tazarotene and tretinoin) as well as natural fruit enzymes from pineapple (bromelain) and papaya (papain).  These substances exfoliate the cell residues, which leads to faster shedding of the dead skin cells. You can purchase these exfoliating products in various forms like lotions, gels and scrubs.

What ingredients should my exfoliant include?

It depends on whether the exfoliant is a prescription or an over-the-counter product. If it is a prescription product, doctors will recommend exfoliants with tretonoin since this is still the strongest chemical exfoliant however care should be taken as sensitivity and irritation can occur so a milder over the counter product may be more appropriate to use on a long term basis.

If an over-the-counter product works best for you, then I suggest looking for the following ingredients:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) including  glycolic, lactic and mandelic acids. Ingredients such as glycolic acid aid in not only the removal of dead skin cells but also the encouragement of healthy new cells full of moisture to the skin’s surface.
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid, tropic acid, beta-hydroxybutanoic acid and trethocanoic acid are more suitable for a younger, acne prone skin type.

You may have to compare exfoliants to determine which one contains most or all of these ingredients.

What doses of ingredients should my exfoliant contain?

Exfoliants usually contain varied formulations of the above mentioned ingredients.  The trick is in choosing the best one that best fit your skin type, which will also mean trying out many brands before settling on the exfoliant with the best results in the shortest time possible.

For dry skin, aging skin I suggest going for the chemical exfoliants with AHA such as glycolic acid while oily skin works well with BHA exfoliants such as Salycilic acid.

Is it best to use products with one, or with a combination of ingredients for best effect?

A combination of both physical and chemical ingredients may generate the best result for your skin type.  Keep in mind, nonetheless, that it is not just the right product that matters but how often you use it that matters, too.  Different skin types require different frequency of use, such that dry skin should be exfoliated once a week, normal and combination skin two times a week and oily skin every other day.

What should I look out for when selecting an exfoliant?

As with most skin care products, you have to ensure that the exfoliant chosen is suited for your skin type, is priced reasonably and is safe for long-term use.  It does pay to do your research on the best exfoliants before purchasing a few of these products and trying them out.

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Fiona Tuck is a Skincare Expert, Nutritional Medicine Practitioner and an accredited member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society. Her in-depth knowledge and insight into future trends within the health industry has made her a sought-after media expert. Fiona’s holistic approach to nutritional health is driven by her mantra: “Nutrition is the grass roots of good health".